State of Money in Politics: The price of victory is steep

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This story is the first in a four-part series analyzing money-in-politics trends from the 2018 midterms that will continue to have an impact on 2020 and future elections. CRP Executive Director Sheila Krumholz will present crucial campaign finance trends and figures during "Most Expensive Midterm Ever: What the Numbers Tell Us about Spending on the 2018 Federal Elections," an event hosted by FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, on Feb. 21 at 1:30 p.m.

Winning isn’t easy. Or cheap.

With the 2018 election smashing midterm records and giving way to several record-breaking individual races, the price of a seat — and a vote — is steeper than ever for those entrenched in high-profile contests.

Thirty-five Senate candidates won in 2018, spending an average of $15.7 million to do so. The price of victory was far lower for successful House candidates, averaging just over $2 million.

The eight successful Senate non-incumbents spent an average of $23.8 million. Accordingly, each of the three highest-spending Senate candidates were challengers going up against well-funded incumbents.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was the lone winner of the three, spending an all-time record $83.5 million and self-funding a record $63.5 million of his campaign dollars en route to a close win over incumbent Bill Nelson ($33 million spent). Including outside spending, the Florida battle surpassed $209 million in total spending, blowing away the previous record-holder.

Texas was the battleground for the most money spent by two candidates in a Senate race, where unsuccessful candidate Beto O’Rourke shelled out $79 million. In New Jersey, Bob Hugin spent $39 million in mostly self-funded money in his loss to incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez.

Non-incumbent House candidates spent an average of $3.5 million to win in 2018, but that was mostly driven by House Democrats who enjoyed a $300 million cash advantage over Republicans in 2018. The average non-incumbent Democrat spent more than $4.4 million to win a seat in the House, compared to roughly $1.6 million for Republicans.

That discrepancy is due in part to the widespread success of House Democrats in toss-up races. Almost all of the non-incumbent House Republican wins came in red seats — vacated amidst an unprecedented wave of GOP retirements — which don’t typically require robust fundraising.

Victory isn’t expensive for everyone. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) never faced a serious threat of losing, and thus spent just over $3.9 million to retain her seat — less than the $5.8 million she spent in 2012. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spent just $4.5 million in 2018 after shelling out nearly $6.3 million in 2018.

Though the 2018 election was record-breaking in many ways, the explosion of cash wasn’t spread out equally. While high-profile races draw most of the money, safe seats see almost no spending whatsoever. Longtime Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) spent nearly $605,000 to retain his deep-red seat with 77 percent of the vote. Representing perhaps the most liberal district in the U.S., Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) was even more frugal, spending $237,215 while winning 96 percent of the vote.

How much does a vote cost?

Sparsely-populated states were crucial toward control of the Senate in 2018. Thus, candidates raised and spent millions upon millions to garner relatively small amounts of votes.

Of the victorious Senate candidates, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) spent more per vote than anyone else at nearly $81. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) came in second, spending $52 per vote and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) was third ($44 per vote).

The highest-spending winners on the House side had to shell out even more for fewer votes. Loaning his campaign nearly $18 million, Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) spent more than $112 per vote. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) spent more than $98 per vote and Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.) spent more than $95.

The numbers were even more jarring for candidates that spent massive sums and lost. Incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) spent an unprecedented $171 per vote in her losing effort, while Andrew Janz spent $86 per vote — more than any unsuccessful House candidate — in his loss to the better-funded Nunes.

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